Our next installment of Sea Stories comes from Katie Malik, who is the youngest daughter of Gig Harbor Boat Works founders Dave & Janet Robertson. Katie recently rowed a 10′ Navigator out to Blake Island State Park to camp overnight, and documented her story for us.
I’m a boatbuilder’s daughter.
A large portion of my childhood was spent on the water. Family vacations were sailing trips to the San Juan islands, hopping from harbor to harbor, anchoring out in remote bays with meandering tidepools along rocky beaches.
My sister and I spent countless nights on the dock at Friday Harbor with flashlight in hand, shining the beam down into the water and watching for the reflection of the beady little eyes of bay shrimp. Eagerly plunging a hand net into the water to make the catch.
One night when we were anchored out in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, my Dad got my sister and me out of bed and took us out for a late-night row. We had no idea why, until he told us to look down at the oars pulling through the water, revealing a shimmering streak of light in their wake – the natural phosphorescence of microscopic creatures.
With so many of my favorite childhood memories revolving around boats, it’s a little surprising that I’ve never before ventured out on a boating trip on my own. As involved as I was in the family adventures we had on shore, and as much as I learned along the way as I lent a hand with rigging and steering the boat, I was always in the role of passenger or crew . . . but never captain.
An adventure close to home
For my whole life, I’ve been hearing stories about adventures out at sea. My Dad sailed in the Victoria-Maui sailboat race on the crew of the Warrior in 1986. We’ve befriended ocean rowers like Jordan Hanssen of OAR Northwest who rowed across the Atlantic (twice). I’ve posted rousing stories on this very blog about Roz Savage who crossed the Pacific, and Eric Erdun of “Around ‘n’ Over” who rowed and cycled around the world.
I may not be cut out for a big undertaking like theirs, but there was something humbly inspiring in the idea of taking a little sea adventure in my own backyard – a chance to test my mettle and explore the world at my very doorstep.
One of the places I vaguely remembered from my childhood was Blake Island. Close to Gig Harbor, the entire island is a Washington State Park that is only accessible by boat. It is best known for Tillicum Village, with its totem poles and the traditional native dinner and show. The last time I was there was probably around second grade, so my memories aren’t clear, but the place is associated with a generally warm and fuzzy feeling.
So when I decided I wanted to try my hand at a solo boat camping trip, a row out to Blake Island was the logical choice. Only a stone’s throw across the water, it was a reasonable distance for a novice rower like me. I’ve rowed plenty in my life, but not in any formal way, and almost always with someone else in the boat. (In college some friends almost convinced me to try out for the crew team because my petite size would make me the ideal coxswain, but the moment I found out it meant getting up at 4:30 every morning I bolted for the door.)
Seizing the opportunity
We often get some beautiful weather in the Puget Sound area as the last page of summer turns to fall, and this past week offered just such an opportunity. I made the decision on Monday to head out on Wednesday, and just needed to talk with the guys at the shop and get their help choosing and prepping my boat. (One of the privileges of being the boatbuilder’s daughter is the access to Gig Harbor Boat Works’ fleet of demo boats for adventures like this.)
I wanted to take one of our medium-small boats that would row beautifully, have plenty of cargo room for my camping gear, and also be light enough for me to maneuver up the beach singlehandedly. (All our boats are plenty light, but at 4’11” and 100 pounds, I am smaller than most people.) I ended up leaning toward the 10’ Navigator, my only concern was that the foot well was so large my short little legs would have nowhere to push from and give me much-needed leverage while rowing. All that open floor space is great for sailing, but not so much for rowing.
Falk, handy carpenter that he is, measured out the space between my feet and the stern seat, and quickly built me a custom foot block to support my feet in proper rowing position. It fit to a T and sealed the deal that the Navigator would be my vessel for this little journey. As a bonus, this particular Navigator had Inflatable Sponsons installed which could be handy in case the weather turned foul while I was alone out there.
Packing didn’t take me long… I’ve done plenty of backpacking and mountaineering over the years so I already had pretty much all the gear I needed. Combining the elements of water and camping I ended up with a little higher volume of gear than I originally hoped to bring (I’m a firm believer in traveling light), but I figured in this case it was better to pack a little heavy than risk going without something I needed for my first stab at a solo adventure. I liked that I didn’t need to buy any specific gear to make the trip – the only thing I picked up that I didn’t already own was an inexpensive dry bag to protect my good camera and a dry towel.
There are plenty of launches close to Blake Island. Since this was a small boat we could easily carry down to the beach, we didn’t need to worry about getting to a place with a launch ramp. I settled on the little one right next to the Southworth Ferry dock where it’s a straight shot and only about 1 nautical mile away from the island’s southern tip.
Falk dropped me off at noon, and we loaded up the boat. Looking down at the boat full of gear and out toward the island in the distance I had a brief moment of asking myself, “How crazy am I?” But there’s good crazy and bad crazy… and this felt like the good kind of crazy.
I left at slack tide so that I’d have minimal current pulling against me. The row went smoothly, and by the time I was mid-course I was thankful I’d had the foresight to ask Falk to install a rowing mirror so I could keep my destination in my sights. The footblock worked like a charm and let me use my lower body strength instead of relying solely on my shoulders and arms for power.
The overcast clouds began to burn off as soon as I launched, leaving clear blue skies that warmed me up quickly. Other than a few anxious moments of “gosh I hope that ferry turns toward Southworth and not toward me” the passage was entirely non-eventful, and I got to settle into an easy, steady pace. I’ve learned from mountaineering that even the biggest distance is passable if you steady your breath and just focus on one step at a time. The same truth seemed to bear out in rowing . . . slow and steady, one stroke at a time you will keep getting closer to your destination.
I hadn’t decided where I was going to camp as I approached the island. Blake Island is roughly triangular in shape, and each point of the triangle has a campground of one type or another. The closest sites were on the southern tip, but the amenities and views aren’t quite as nice. I figured if my stamina was wearing out I’d camp there, but if I had the energy after crossing then I’d head over to the Marine Trail campground on the Northwest corner, where there are Olympic Mountain views and sites are reserved for people who arrive by human-powered boats. It would nearly double the total distance, but near shore for some reason it doesn’t feel quite as far.
Feeling pretty good with plenty of energy left once I reached shore, I turned my heading to the Northwest to go check it out.
Getting the lay of the land
Cruising along the shore, I saw a lumpy-looking gray creature trundling along the waterline. From a distance I wasn’t sure if it was a seal or what . . . but as I got closer, I recognized it as one of Blake Island’s resident raccoon bandits. Walking along the shore, it was turning over rocks, digging down and looking for snacks. I’d never seen a raccoon dig for clams before – but I guess a scavenger is a scavenger, whether their prey is beach mollusks or garbage cans!
I rowed past the mooring buoys along the West side of the island; a couple of sailboats were moored and I got a lot of smiles and waves. People seemed surprised, even impressed, that a solo rower was coming across to camp out overnight.
The campground came into view and I turned into shore to land. The soft sands of low tide made for an easy landing, and I could see why they put the Marine Trail camp on this part of the island. I pulled the painter up the beach just for a few minutes while I scoped out the sites.
The Marine Trail campsites were on the Northern side of the point, with a great view of both the mountains and downtown Seattle, but the wind was out of the north and the sites were a little further from the water so I couldn’t keep my boat in easy view. So I settled on the northernmost site on the Western campground side, where I would have some shelter from the wind, an easy distance to bring the boat above the high tide line next to the site, and a great view of the mountains.
The passage of time out on a boat, with the hypnotizing rhythm of the oars and waves underneath you, can be a little hard to gauge. I checked the clock and saw it had only taken me 65 minutes from shore to shore! My dad told me it took him about 45 minutes, so I was proud of myself that I made it in such good time without training up or even really being sure of my course.
An hour later, I’d eaten lunch and pitched my tent, and the nice couple from one of the sailboats had offered to help carry the boat up above the tideline. They were impressed by its light weight and indeed by all the cargo it had carried. Nice job, little Navigator!
I locked up my food in the adjacent bear bin, having been forewarned about the brazenness of the island’s raccoons. With the rest of the afternoon and evening at my leisure, I grabbed my backpack and headed down the trail to explore the island. I decided to head over to Tillicum Village, since I hadn’t been there in 30 years I thought I’d see if anything looked familiar.
An Island of Forests, Dinosaurs and Ghosts
There are few places in the world where I feel as comfortable and at-ease than under a canopy of native evergreens, with thick underbrush of sword ferns and salal. Not an invasive Himalayan blackberry to be found, though a few vines of native Pacific blackberry trailed through here and there. I did a bit of singing as I walked along the trail, as I often do . . . but wasn’t greeted with any deer this time around.
Walking through the dense greenery felt a bit like a scene out of Jurassic Park. When I came across a directional sign at a trail crossing I almost expected a dilophosaurus to come crashing out of the brush toward me.
I stumbled across a sign for an interpretive trail that caught my eye, and turned down the path. A few minutes in I came across a big, hollowed-out tree stump and flashed back to a memory from my childhood. I remembered walking inside this huge tree the size of a room, staring up at these towering natural walls over my head. Looking at it now, I recognized the same tree but was stunned by how small I must have been at the time for it to feel so cavernous in my memory!
Around the next bend, I came across another tree that explained why this place made me think of dinosaurs. I remembered the “dinosaur tree,” with its trunk like legs and a long brontosaurus neck reaching up into the canopy of green.
The trail emerged right behind Tillicum Village, and I walked around to explore the marina and the grassy park. A family of deer grazed calmly next to me, habituated to the presence of non-threatening people. I stretched out my shoulders with a bit of yoga in sight of Mt. Rainier towering in the distance.
I arrived back on “my” beach about an hour before sundown, enjoyed the sun-warmed sand, made some dinner and watched the sunset. Got my fire going on the first try, and watched the light change on the mountains as the sun went down. As the last light of day bled out of the sky, I heard a gentle pad of cautious hooves and saw the silhouette of a young buck against the glint of the water, as it foraged along the shoreline. We had a staring contest for a few minutes until it continued on its way.
Letting go of expectations
I spent the rest of the evening watching the fire and simply decompressing from the stressors of daily life. “Why,” I asked myself, “did it take me so long to do this?”
I’ve always been an independent person with a streak of wanderlust. Having traveled solo in Europe and around the US, I was a caught a little off guard by how easy this whole thing felt . . . surprised by the quick and easy passage, by the unexpected amenities of running water and flush toilets. But more than that, was my sudden appreciation of my own comfort outdoors and my contentment in my aloneness.
The arrival of the park ranger about an hour after sundown brought a short bit of conversation – he also seemed surprised to find a rower, let alone a female rower, traveling solo and camping out overnight. He praised my foresight for bringing my own firewood (duh), noticed my nearby rowboat, and assumed I’d come from one of the sailboats moored nearby.
It’s interesting, for some reason people don’t really think much of a man traveling alone, but a woman traveling by herself always makes people look twice like they (or we) must be missing something.
For the ladies out there, I’d just like to say how refreshing it is to feel completely self-reliant, and to know you can do this stuff without it needing to be part of a romantic escape or a family-quality-time, memory-making moment. Those opportunities are of course fantastic, but it’s also OK to take the time to do the things you want to do without having to worry about fulfilling anyone else’s needs or agenda along the way.
“Yes, I’m doing this on purpose!”
The morning light crept in and woke me up around 7 am, just as the sun started to appear on the mountaintops across the water. I had an easy breakfast while watching the changing light on the hills, packed up camp, and around 9 am headed back across.
This time with the wind at my back, I made great time on the return trip. About halfway across, a gentleman waved at me from a sailboat motoring south, shouting, “Is everything okay?”
I laughed and nodded, shouting back, “Yes, I’m doing this on purpose!”
I landed less than an hour after I launched, my hands a bit tired from gripping the oars but otherwise none the worse for wear. Almost wishing that I’d had something more eventful to write about, but more thankful that the entire trip had gone off without a hitch.
Falk hadn’t even left the shop yet when he got my text that I’d arrived, so I took a cue from the playbook of my geologist sister, and combed the beach looking for agates while I waited for my ride home.
Found one . . .
I’m a geologist’s sister. I’m an army wife. I’m my mother’s daughter.
I’m a singer.
I am a boatbuilder’s daughter.
A lovely story. I’m in a cove group with your parents.
Thank you Katie, that was a wonderful read and I could sense the sights and sounds as I sit here in the Mojave desert so many miles away. Add to the list of what you are, Writer Extraordinaire.
Thanks John, that is high praise!
Thank you for the great read.
It just so happens I met with a buddy this evening in Cabo San Lucas, Baja, Mexico. We planned our rowing trip for next week from La Paz to Isla Espiritu Santos and Isla Partida. We’ll row around the islands taking 4 days to dive, fish and hike the emerald waters and rocky peaks of el Mar de Cortez.
My ocean rowing interest was sparked after stumbling across another great read, “Alone in the Caribbean” by Frederic Fenger written at the end of the 1800s. He rowed a 17′ sailing canoe for hundreds of miles, hunted whales, climbed volcanos and met interesting characters when rowing voyages were more rare than they are today. This book can be found on the internet with photos of his boat.
Thank you for adding to the tales that inspire us all.
Wow, that sounds like a great adventure – and would be the makings of a great sea story if you’re willing to share! What boat will you be rowing?
I’ve been to Isla Espiritu Santos myself, actually – went with my parents to the Sea of Cortez for my dad’s 60th birthday. I vividly remember swimming with the sea lions and seeing the massive schools of fish while snorkeling. Such an incredible place!
P.S. Directly south of Isla Espiritu Santos is a tiny little beachside bar called Tecolote, we spotted it from a hilltop while on a hike and rowed a boat around to it. You can pull your boat right up on the beach, have a beer, chat with friendly people. One of my favorite parts of that trip!
Thanks for the inspiring story — we live very close to your launch point at Southworth, and plan to take our Point Defiance “Surprise” over to Blake this summer. It should hold two of us and our gear pretty easily. Never knew about the recons! I love the modification Falk did; his expertise and willingness to experiment out of our imagination are the sort of things that makes GHBW a special shop.
Hi Kevin! Yeah I think the Point Defiance will be great for this trip – that actually was my initial thought about what boat to take for this trip, but I thought the slightly smaller Navigator would just be a bit more maneuverable. Agree the PD should fit the two of you and your gear to a T, no problem.
Yeah the raccoons are no joke! Really nice that every campsite has its own bear bin to lock up any edible goodies. About three of them invaded my campsite shortly after sunset, fortunately I’d put my food away immediately and just had the little pile of snacks right next to me while I sat by the fire… was tossing pinecones at them to shoo them away!